Spurring local business interests overseas

by Dan Holland

With Japan being the largest foreign job investor in the state of Ohio, accounting for 27.2% of foreign investment, Richfield Mayor Michael Wheeler traveled to Tokyo with a small contingency of fellow Northeast Ohio mayors to meet with several companies and officials to discuss potential economic development opportunities. The 860 Japanese companies in the state provide more than 73,000 jobs.

Wheeler, who is president of the Mayors Association of Portage, Stark and Summit Counties (MAPSS), embarked on the trip June 1-9 accompanied by Fairlawn Mayor Russell Sharnsky, Reminderville Mayor Samuel Alonso and Boston Heights Mayor Ronald Antal. The contingency also included MAPSS Executive Director Louis Berroteran, and an interpreter with dual American/Japanese citizenship.

The trip was Wheeler’s first to Japan.

“The purpose of the trip was to thank the 33 major Japanese companies that exist with headquarters in Stark, Portage and Summit Counites,” said Wheeler. “We let them all know that we are government friendly and open to additional Japanese companies coming to Ohio, and also to discuss what we have to offer that is different from other areas of the United States.”

With a declining native population, many Japanese companies are looking to continue expansion of operations overseas, said Wheeler. “Most Japanese corporations are saturated at home, so they’re looking to expand, with the U.S. being their first choice,” he said. “So, as mayors, we discussed the options these Japanese companies would have. Since we have Honda and Toyota in the state of Ohio, there’s an automatic supply chain possibility for many of these companies.”

Wheeler noted that Mitsui & Co. (U.S.A.) Inc. currently operates a division on Highlander Parkway in Richfield.

“There are 80 divisions of Mitsui, and so, I talked with the Mitsui director about the possibility of at least one of the other Mitsui divisions locating to Northeast Ohio, and specifically Richfield,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler noted that the additional three mayors all have at least one major Japanese company currently operating in their communities.

“We have such a great cost of living and real estate here along with a low crime rate, and we do have a Japanese population in Richfield that is growing,” said Wheeler. “I learned that one square meter of land in Tokyo costs $39,118, making it some of the most expensive real estate in the world. And so, when these Japanese companies look at where they can go, it’s definitely not downtown Tokyo.”

Wheeler noted the cleanliness and order found throughout Tokyo – a city with a population of 40 million. He also took note of the level of respect afforded each person as a common element of Japanese culture.

“We were treated there as if we were the president of the United States,” said Wheeler. “The extreme respect – that was a real highlight for me. And meeting Governor Ono of Saitama Prefecture – which is similar to a state – with the paparazzi and the cameras, and myself sitting at the right hand of the governor as the president of MAPPS, and me giving the key to the city; that was a real highlight of the trip.”

Prior to the trip, the group received a 51-page itinerary and instructions in Japanese etiquette and cultural norms.

“We were all put into a room in Fairlawn and had a Japanese instructor come in and teach us the words we needed to know like ‘thank you,’ ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good evening,’” said Wheeler. “We were instructed that when you walk into a room, you don’t take a seat; you are assigned a seat, and you stand until you’re asked to sit down.”

A highly structured itinerary left time for only one-half day of sightseeing.

“On June 8, we took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, which is a very historic city,” said Wheeler. “It was exciting to tour Kyoto; to see the places where the shogun started, and seeing places that have so much historical significance for the Japanese people. We got to tour the 1,300- to 2,000-year-old Shinto and Buddhist buildings and the homes of the various shoguns.”

Wheeler noted that a Japanese friend of his took the bullet train to Kyoto to spend the half-day with him and the group. “My Japanese friend, who lives in Hiroshima, rode the bullet train to meet us in Kyoto,” he explained. “We were told prior not to discuss World War II in any way, shape or form; we didn’t, but [my friend] did. He said to the Americans ‘thank you for not bombing Kyoto, because we wouldn’t have these 1,300- to 2,000-year-old buildings if that had happened.’”

Wheeler said he would like to return to Japan sometime as a tourist.

“It was a working trip, and it was high-energy, but also a lot of fun,” he said. “For anyone thinking about visiting Japan, it is a safe country, and it is a wonderful country with an honorable culture.” ∞

The mayors’ delegation from Summit, Medina and Portage counties met with representatives from Fujitsu, a Japanese technology company that specializes in consumer and industrial electronics. Photos provided. 

Mayor Wheeler took this photo of Tokyo Bay from a ship that he was on.

On our cover (photos): On an economic development trip to Japan with the Mayor’s Association of Portage, Stark and Summit counties, Mayor Michael Wheeler is presenting a key to the Village of Richfield to Governor Ōno Motohiro of Saitama Prefecture. In the foreground is Mt. Fuji and a shogun meeting house, circa 1217. Photos provided.